Friday, December 5, 2008

To Market, to Market, to buy...

If you are looking to sell entertainment to children and, hopefully, a bunch of stuff based on that entertainment, you have to understand the marketplace. What are those kids buying, or more importantly, what are they watching? Technology has widened the choices for young audiences. Broadcast television, cable, satellite TV, DVDs and TiVo, video games, and the Internet has divided the audience into very fussy viewers. Children's entertainment and the venue for watching it has changed over the years and is changing faster today.

In the days when I was in that young audience, the shows I watched were all about goofy adults or animals that behaved like goofy adults. In live action it was Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy or Martin and Lewis. In animation, feature films were about fairy tale adults like Cinderella, Snow White or Lady and the Tramp. The reason for this was the film makers were trying to entice a Family Audience into the movie houses and that included Mom and Dad as well as the kids. Television with it specific "target" audiences changed that focus.

For years the pundits of television decided that their audience was going to be little boys. They came to believe that little girls did not control the program selection. Aggressive little brothers changed the channels to what they wanted to watch and the girls "went along with it". The youngest children would watch what the older kids watched and school-age viewers stopped watching cartoons once they reached their teenage years. That limited the audience from seven to eleven year old boys. The broadcasters sold a lot of toys to this audience but it didn't include many dolls. After women entered the executive levels of television and programming, the desire for "girl shows" emerged. We saw "My Little Pony", "Care Bears", "Jem" and, later, "Power Puff Girls" and "Kim Possible". The best of these shows tried for a "cross-over" audience that appealed to both genders. "Spongebob" and "ChalkZone" were good examples of these types of shows.

That was then. This is now. The pendulum has swung around to all-boy shows again. And the age group has shifted to "Tweens", kids between the ages of 11 to 14. This audience is no longer elementary school kids but not quite full-blown teenagers. With the advent of Pre-school shows, and whole Networks that cater to them, there now is a designation for every age group in the pre-adult market. This change of marketing strategy can prove to be very inconvenient for a producer that has created a show around a specific audience. This happened to me very recently.

I worked three years on developing a show around a strong, if reluctant, female heroine. It revolved around a Korean girl who was the last member of an ancient Chinese Clan of super-warriors who fought a race of alternate universe goblins. With the help of her Grandmother, and a power mask, she guards a portal against an invasion of this old evil. Created in Korea, it had to appeal to Western markets. I became involved and added western interest by having the girl be a Korean-American visiting her Grandmother in Korea when the goblins invade through an opened portal. Sound good? It was a sure sell to the Koreans who sought Chinese investment. The Chinese joined the project but wanted "Chinese content" so the Korean locale was changed to a Chinese one. The girl now became a Chinese-American child and the story had to be changed and prepared for production with this in mind. An American investor with distribution ties bought into the project late but insisted on doing some "due diligence" about what the networks were buying. The conclusion was that the current project needed redevelopment. This time the hero had to be a boy! This would have changed the whole dynamic of the series and delayed production for a year, so a compromise was arranged. A male Chinese cousin was added to the series and another power mask added. Now two hero characters had to be served and the story "bible" had to be extensively rewritten...again!

It's never an adventure if things go smoothly. Rivers change courses, passes are snowed in, alliances with local natives are re-arranged and yet, the project must continue. Adjusting to changing markets, the addition of new partners and the betrayal of alliances are all part of the journey. Experience is the factor that makes the difference in success or failure. Invest in that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Studio Ownership...Part Two

The fledgling studio I started took on a partner when Nandu relented and joined the experiment. We were the best of friends and took out a two year lease in a new building. We needed to sign a partnership contract between us so we had an attorney draw one up. This was like getting married! The lawyer asked us terrible questions like; "If one of you gets sick and can't work, does he still get paid? If one of you dies does the business pass onto the partner or does the wife or children inherit that share?" Our friendship was tested at the beginning during this contract process. We survived and assessed our assets. Nandu was a designer as well as an animator so he designed a flyer and we hired a business promoter. I had established a contact with a major studio and we exploited that by contracting out all the layout designs for a new show. Thanks to Nandu, a well known cartoonist collaborated with us to produce and animate a couple of main titles for a Mexican studio. We paid our bills and shared all revenues. Unfortunately, Magic Lantern Animation made the same money as before but now had to divide it by two. This was less than we could live on. After a year, we bought out of the lease and went in search of new prospects. It was my first entry into the pleasures and pitfalls of studio ownership. I'd recommend it to everyone who is young and stupid. You have many years to recover from your mistakes and maybe learn something from them. By then you'll be older and smarter or, at least, less stupid.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gone Native

The best guides across the western wilderness have "gone native". This is a term, often of derision, used to describe a man who has lived too long among the native tribes he works with. The tell-tale signs are there. He has a native wife. His hair and clothing reflects the style of those who trade with him. He'll sit on the ground before he will a chair. He points with his chin. He punctuates his dialogue with sign language gestures. He speaks in phrases known only to the initiated. These "native" guides were often distrusted by the Eastern men who hired them because they feared their loyalty was suspect. Yet, the most prosperous voyages used these men.

New investors seeking to penetrate the American animation market will do well to put their faith in a guide the natives trust. You'll need a crew to make your fortune and a good guide, trusted in the business, knows the best people for the job. Artists are funny people. They see things differently than other folks. They aren't very good at schedules, budgets, international currency exchanges or even test marketing. And they are very distrustful of people who do know those things,...unless they can draw. They can seem obstinate, lazy or untrustworthy to someone who only thinks with their left brain. A guide who knows his crew, their strengths and weaknesses, can position them where he knows only their best will shine. I have learned my craft from the best in the business. Legendary men who were flawed but gifted. I have come to know that often the most visionary of men are not always the most reliable. But when surrounded by a talented support crew the product produced exceeds expectations every time.

Fur traders leaving Montreal in the East to make their fortunes in the West, beyond the far coast of Lake Superior, manned an eight to twelve man canoe. In the front went the visionary, the Avant, to warn of dangers ahead and to plot the best route. In the rear was the Gouvenail, the practical man, whose skill at steerage guided the boat to safety. Ranging along each side of the canoe were the Milieux, or middle men. They were the common rowers and packers who did the hardest work but bore the least responsibility. Sprinkled about the milieaux were "singers" who knew many songs and sang out to aid the rowers to pull in cadence along the journey. These "singers" were paid extra because their songs made the work easier and the trip faster. In the center of the canoe sat the Bourgeois. He is the leader of the crew. If any man of the canoe suffers an injury that makes it impossible to do his job, the bourgeois takes that job over. He has done all the jobs in the canoe including cataloguing the goods and keeping the ledger.

Dear Investor, when you leave behind what you know to travel into unknown but rich territory, choose the right man to sit next to in the canoe. Choose a bourgeois that knows the route, knows his crew, knows how to keep the books and, just as important, knows how to sing! Then, when the wind is blowing, the rain is falling and practical efforts fail, the songs will pull the canoe through the waves to the prosperous shores ahead.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Studio Ownership...Part One.

I played with feature animation for awhile. After Nandu's exit, a constant drain of talent left Vinnie's studio. I stayed on until the last moment requiring a formal "layoff notice" for termination. This allowed certain unemployment benefits to kick in. Afterwards, with feature "credits", I followed another animator over to the next feature in town. This one was funded by Asian money with a young Asian designer as studio head. The money was good but there seemed to be less structure at this studio than the last. There was amazing talent hired but no clear direction as to what the story was that we planned to tell. And so we drifted into development purgatory for months, maybe years. I saw my opportunities for advancement and creative expression wane away. A veteran animator saw it differently: "I have no problem being a rich man's play thing!" I was too young for such philosophy and I slid into a creative depression.

So, I quit that comfortable job and opened my own studio with no prospects and no clients. This was something I often talked about with my animator friend Nandu, so I suggested we team up. Nandu was reluctant to get involved. Starting your own studio was a big risk and he was already running a nice side business doing publication illustrations for a big studio. So Nandu deferred. I made a few phone calls and let it be known that I was available and a few small jobs came in. Then the television animation season kicked in and I became one of the "farm houses" the major studios jobbed overflow production to. A couple of nice little product commercials ended up in my hands and the studio made the rent. In fact, my wife, who was against the whole enterprise from the start, had to admit that by the end of the year my income had exceeded the salary I made at the feature studio!

Now, Pilgrim Artist, I know what your thinking. You think that starting your own place is the fastest way to success. I beg to differ. For me it was the course of last resort. I'm a brick by brick kind of builder. Over the years as I acquired more respect and opportunity I moved up the pay rate. Client meetings, self-promotion, budgets, schedules, taxes and expenses, long hours for no extra pay, artists who fail to deliver and someone else's vision to perfect, was NOT my idea of the perfect employment situation. Yet, I was doing okay and my self-image picked up. This was noticed by friends and acquaintances and everyone wanted to attach themselves to a "winner". Best of all, I thought, Nandu came back.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Telling Tales

When you're leading a pack train through the wilderness, every man in the group has a job to do. Some know what plants are useful for food or medicine. Others are experts at horse-wrangling. There are blacksmiths, saddle-makers and gunsmiths in our outfit. Everyone has an essential skill. When asked what I did to benefit the group, I answered, "I tell the stories." I believe storytelling is essential to survival. Storytelling preserves the history and accomplishments of a culture and, if well done, entertains as well, thereby assuring their repetition. Telling tales is what I have done all my life. Coupling this talent with an ability to draw led to a career in animation.

I still tell stories as a living. As a layout artist, the way I pose a character tells a story about the character through their body language or dress. The way I compose the character against the background I design sets the mood for the story to be told. As a storyboard artist, I interpret the script in a graphic manner that creates a film around the story told. As a writer, I determine what story will be told on the screen. An animated tale lives or dies by the story that is told through a multitude of hands and minds.

When you're telling multiple stories for a television series you don't just tell one story at a time. You design a series as you would design a painting. You choose a point of focus and you lead the eye around the painting through a series of planned elements, shapes or color, to give the desired effect. You didn't know that's what an accomplished painter does? That's good! The exceptional painter never wants you to know that you're being manipulated.

So it goes with an accomplished storyteller. You design the first episode to introduce the key character and all the people he will being working closely with throughout the series. You create an exciting story that will set the tone for all the stories to come. And, more importantly, besides the beginning, you design a through story that gives you a middle and an end of the series, or at least, the first 13 episodes. This allows the creator or story editor to instruct his writers in the type of stories that need to be told to advance the goals the series is heading towards. Have you noticed that the most successful series on television, with the best written stories, all have this forethought put into the direction of the show? You haven't noticed that connection? Then, the next time you're planning on producing an animated television series, give the Mad Animation Prophet a call!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Striking the Mother Load

As a worker bee in the hive of television animation you were "paid by the pound". You got a minimum salary but were expected to turn in so much "footage" or scenes or drawings to justify it. This resulted in the general opinion that television was cheap "rush" work. If you longed for respect, you had to move into theatrical features. This basically meant you had to work at Disney because they had the "lock" on animated features. Disney was considered the "Cloisters" because they didn't seem to fraternize with anyone from television and didn't know what was going on in animation beyond the walls of their studio. Amazingly, they never got laid off! Everyone wanted to work on a feature project but Disney was a "closed shop". You had to be born inside the walls, it seemed, to get a shot at working there. (This was more true than not. Disney workers beget Disney workers!) This all changed in the 70s when the underground comic book movement beget X-rated animated features!

There was a new look to animated features and it was an adult look. It was irreverent, sexy and foul mouthed. It mocked established institutions like government, religion and politics. And it did it all with the raw, unbridled look of underground comics. This movement was headed by a young man from New York, we called him "Vinnie", who brought the world of underground comic book artists to the screen. At the beginning of his rise I ended up working at his studio. During a drunken luncheon one day Nandu, an animator friend of mine, and I decided to enlist with this new studio and embrace its vision to take on the Disney giant. We were hired after an interview, Nandu as an animator and I as his assistant. I was finally working on a feature production. I had hit the mother load!

There's a lot of good things about working on a feature. First off, it's a union staff position so its pays well every week and comes with full benefits. It's a long-form project so it could last two years in production! Best of all, you have all the necessary time you need to do your best work. Of course, this was NOT a Disney feature but an independent production which meant Vinnie could make up his own rules about how the picture was to be made. He took some "shortcuts". He didn't photograph the rough pencil animation before it was painted but waited to see how it looked on the scene in color. Instead, he would "flip" the animation in his hands to see how it played. Tim, another animator on staff, picked up on that and only gave Vinnie completed, cleaned-up roughs to look at. He had a special relationship. His wife was also on staff as his exclusive assistant and his daughter was her exclusive inbetweener. Tim was a favorite because Vinnie could see his work fully as he flipped it. I had worked with Tim before and always thought his work was mediocre but the boss loved it.

The rest of the animators had to use assistants and inbetweeners from the "pool", like me. Vinnie expected a reasonable amount of work from his animators and Nandu had difficulty meeting that demand without utilizing some "tricks" he learned in the television business. Nandu was a master of the "invisible hold". He would keep a character in one position for no more than a third of a second or 8 frames of film. Even if the character stopped moving his body, something else on the character, his arm, his hair or tie, would continue animating. This was known as "overlap" in the industry. And before the character started moving again, he would begin the animation with a simple action like a hand move, an eye blink or a head bob preceding the actual movement of the character. This was called "anticipation". Overlap and anticipation were the marks of an excellent animator. In order to save money in TV animation, Nandu would use separate drawings of hands, heads and eyes animating atop a character body at rest. Employing this technique, he was able to make the footage demanded by Vinnie. The trouble was, it didn't flip well. A character would move a short while then separate into many body parts making seeing the action out of context on paper impossible. This gave Vinnie the impression that Nandu was a "hack animator". They quarreled and Nandu left. But I stayed on. Other animators liked me and was given prestigious, if difficult, assignments.

I stayed at that job long enough to see justice play out. Eventually, all completed animation was painted and photographed onto 35mm film and Vinnie got to see it in action. Tim's work, which seemed so wonderful on paper, was revealed to be mediocre and he was sacked. However, when Vinnie saw Nandu's work on the screen, he was delighted. He loved it and wanted the animator who did it praised and given more work! He seemed confused when he was informed that he fired that artist earlier. Vinnie never even knew who did what on his show. And he certainly wasn't able to tell good from bad by merely "flipping" it through his hands.

Friday, September 26, 2008


One of the distinctions of the Golden Age of Animation was uniformity of style. Some people refer to this, mistakenly, as a "house look". A "house look" is a "sameness" to each picture produced by a studio. Disney had that "look" as did Warner Brothers, MGM and UPA. In television Hanna-Barbera fell into that definition. A "house look" could be a good thing if it was considered "classy" as the "Disney look" was. It could be also be considered "dated" like MGM or "limited" like Hanna-Barbera. UPA was called the "modern" or "new look" in its day. This irritated Disney who produced a series of films, Johnny Appleseed, Wind Wagon Smith, Paul Bunyan and the Academy Award winning Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, just to prove they could be "modern" if they wanted. After winning the Oscar and the point proven, Disney went back to their "house look".

Uniformity is something different and fundamental. It's a basic rule of animation that the finished picture should look like it was drawn by one hand. It is, of course, highly improbable that an animated film of any length could be completely drawn by a single individual. Film-making, in general and animation particularly, is a collaborative effort. Hundreds of artists, executives and technicians go into making a theatrical release movie, just check the credits after a PIXAR film for this revelation. Still, no matter how many people are involved in the production of a picture, there should be a uniformity on three levels; purpose, story and design. For the purpose of this discussion, I'm going to focus on design.

I'm a big believer of an Art Director run picture. This is an individual that will set the overall "look" of a picture whether it is character, costume, background locations, interior design or color. This doesn't mean that he draws, designs or paints all these elements himself but he chooses the style and the artists that will be responsible to deliver the look of the show. He is also the key person responsible for all these elements. It's his fault if things go amiss in these areas. The Art Director must be an artist. This person must be able to pick up a pencil or a brush and draw the correction he wants another artist to make. Often, this person is the creator of the cartoon or series being produced. If you are investing in a "film property", you are also investing in a "film maker". The final look of your product must look like this person drew it all. If several artists with different styles are creating elements for the show without an overall creative direction, the result will look like a patchwork quilt. The Arabs have a saying, "A camel is a horse made by committee". There needs to be a single vision on an animated project that controls the style or no one is going to want to saddle up and take a ride on the finished product.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Odd Jobs

I've done some odd jobs in my day. I was a traffic cop at a County Fair. I unloaded watermelons out of a produce truck. I trapped gophers out of local farms and sold their feet to the township. I posed as a wax figure in a Hollywood museum. All this was just to get extra money. What I really wanted to do was work in Animation. Well, young critter, once I became a professional in that industry, I found a lot of odd jobs! As a pilgrim moving up the food chain, I gained experience at a number of jobs. I could draw, I could animate, I could tell a story, I could take orders and, when the opportunity arose, I could give orders as well. I'll give you two examples...

I was approached by a feller that wanted me to produce a music video for him of a group of kids singing "Happy Birthday". You know the song but did you know that the song is copyrighted? Yep. This feller licensed the rights. He figured that videos were the next hot item. If he could personalize them by adding a spot of animation to the head of a purchased video, they'd make great birthday gifts. I asked an intelligent question about what name we would record when you came to the part of the song "...Happy Birthday, Dear ???...". He had no answer. True personalization would require a custom recording of the name and animation of a character saying that name in animation. It was a quandary. Such a question almost killed the job. PILGRIM TIP #1: "Never ask a question you don't have an answer for!" I suggested that we include a dog in the animation that would cheerfully bark at the moment a name was called for. Good answer! The picture moved forward. The film was a simple affair. It was just a puppy with a row of kids in their party clothing holding balloons in front of a simple but colorful card. They sang, the camera cut close on the dog who barked and cut back wide for the finale. It was a husband and wife venture. The wife art directed, the husband financed and I jobbed out the work to an animator, layout artist and a background painter. I directed, painted the cells and moved the finished work through to delivery. What happened after that? I'll probably never know. The little film just disappeared.

I also worked free-lance by mail for a small commercial house in New Mexico. They'd send me a script, a pre-recorded sound track, sometimes an existing model of a character and a tiny budget. I'd do everything else. I drew the storyboard, designed the characters and did the animation. This was all sent back to New Mexico where they finished the commercial, sent me a copy of the finished film and a check for the work. It was a lotta work for the money but fun when you're young and need material for a portfolio reel. Well, I did a commercial for a local (New Mexican) dairy that had a pre-existing character of a boy as its logo for their milk. I didn't care for the design but did the commercial. They loved it and sent me another. While I was working on a feature film, I got a call requesting I do another milk commercial. I refused. The money was bad and I had a full-time gig. They begged. The client insisted that the same guy do the commercial. I offered to find them a good replacement and I'd check in if they had any problems. Grumbling, they agreed. I knew of two good artists temporarily out of work and they jumped at the chance! I offered to give them the contact number and they could run the job directly through the New Mexican agency. "No, no!" they said! They didn't want any contact with the business guys. They insisted that I talk to the client and broker the job to them. "Are you guys nuts?," I asked! "Do all the work yourself and keep all the money". "Nope, nope!" They didn't want to hassle with the "suits". So, I took the job, gave it to the two artists and pocketed an agreed upon fee for the service.

That was the day I decided to become a producer.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doing it the Hard Way

When I was a boy, steam locomotives still hauled freight but were becoming obsolete. The local meat packer in my town donated such a locomotive to our county history museum. The freight yard, where the locomotive was, and the fair grounds, where the museum was located, were on opposite ends of town. A connecting railroad track would have made delivery easy but it didn't exist. So they delivered the locomotive the hard way; they built the track as they went! They laid wooden ties down the center of a paved street just ahead of the locomotive. They put steel rail atop the ties and gently bolted them down. The locomotive drove along the rails the 40 yards to the end of the track, stopped, and waited until the workers ripped up the track behind it and relaid the tracks in front again. It was agonizingly slow progress but fun to watch! Eventually, the locomotive was delivered and no indication of the temporary trackage remained behind.

I've worked on productions like that, except they were no fun to watch. Enthusiasm and money rush in and form a company but before they even survey the track, they've bought a locomotive. Next they acquire a building to house all the employees and fancy furniture. Finally. they pick a destination but argue over which route to take to get there. By this time, the investors wonder when they're going to take their first ride. Suddenly, there's a rush to finish the railroad but there's no money or time left. So, they lay the tracks just ahead of the train, drive a short ways, stop, and wait for money to build farther along while the creditors tear up the tracks behind them. In the end, they've delivered a disappointing project but no trace remains of the company they built.

It doesn't have to be done the hard way. Survey the market, do a business plan, acquire the financing, build a realistic budget and schedule (in other words survey the route and lay the track) and then buy the locomotive! Nothing works like success. With the railroad in place and product moving along the line, the orders will come rolling in. A quality product made on time and on budget always brings repeat business...and a great sense of satisfaction. Animation film making is a business. It follows the same rules as any other business. Hire someone successful at the business of creating and operating an animation production before you start laying track or buying motive power. I've worked on productions that ran like a tuned watch. It takes a mixture of seasoned professionals, eager young apprentices, practical businessmen and courageous investors but this is the easy way to run a railroad or to make a movie about it. Hard work makes a well run operation look well as a lot of fun to watch.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Atristic Intregity versus a Paycheck

So, Young Artist, what's your price? What will you "sell out" for? Remember, as a member of the animation industry you fall into the category of "Commercial Artist". That means you do "art for hire". If you want to draw strictly for your "heart and soul" you must choose "fine art". A "fine artist" draws what inspires him, what gives him pleasure. It doesn't matter what style the art is in, all that matters is whether the artist works according to his own vision NOT someone else's. Jackson Pollock, Andrew Wyeth, Pablo Picasso all fall into the category of "Fine Artists". They drew first and sold, if they could, their work later. Some well known painters crossed over the line separating these two categories and did "work for hire". Toulouse-Lautrec, Peter Paul Rubens, Michelangelo, Maynard Dixon were all known to have done family portraits, ceiling murals, book illustrations and poster designs for a fee. Other famous illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell were perfectly content to make a living in commercial art and never labeled themselves as fine artists.

You, Dear Animation Artist, fall into that last category. You are a Commercial Artist and your work is bought and paid for as you do it. And you do it according to your employer's direction, even if he has no artistic taste what-so-ever. When I got into the business, my employers and supervisors were all professional artists. They taught as they directed. I got better, they got richer. It was an honest trade-off for the education. Today, animation is often controlled by investment bankers and business school graduates. Art is a product and they are the sellers of that product. It angers them when your work does not illustrate their vision, which they are unable to describe graphically to you. Yet, you, as a professional, must find a way to work with these employers.

I worked with a great designer who knew his employer very well. When designing a character for a new show, he would draw about a dozen variations. Then, he would stack them in the order he wanted his boss to see them in. The top four drawings were the best versions. The BEST drawing, his choice, was the third one down in the stack. The balance were just additional drawings that illustrated how bad this character could be drawn. He said his boss would always reject the first drawings he saw and only make up his mind after seeing multiple choices. This professional designer said the third drawing was the most often picked but he could feel good about any of the first four. You also must learn a technique necessary to help blind men see.

This does not mean you have to prostitute yourself or your art for money alone. If it's only about the money, then there are other ways to make it faster and more agreeable. I choose a project for three reasons; I like the project, I like the money and I like the people/person I'm working with. When working in children's television, I found that the product was almost identical from studio to studio. Liking the project seldom factored into my decision. I would change studios only when considerable more money or advancement was offered. After I established myself, I would sometimes take a lower position in order to work on a more prestigious project, like a feature film or to work with a known director, like Chuck Jones. The truth is, most artists work for love. If they only worked for money there would be a lot more rich artists out there. Money does not make you smart or talented or ethical, it only gives you power. I'm more than happy to exchange power for the ability to make smart, artistic decisions that help others to do their jobs better. So, if your dumb, untalented and corrupt employer insists upon doing your job badly, be prepared to walk away. If the job hurts, stop doing it!

During an interview, Hollywood Joe, the smartest and most successful artist/producer in the business, was asked what advice he could give new artist film makers based on his years of experience. He answered, "Be prepared for disappointment." 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pretty Pictures

When you're wandering around the wasteland of Development Hell, you'll see a lot of mirages. A mirage is a image, usually beautiful, that isn't real. Some say it's a reflection of reality, some say it's mere imagination and some say it's pure madness. I say it's an illusion but, like a dream, it can be captured. In animation development, the mirages appear after you've completed your first script. After reading and rereading that document, the new investor may get a vision of the final film. Heck, he'll usually have many visions! In his mind's eye, the film is already done and he's receiving his Oscar or Emmy in front of cameras. To us ol' veterans, the film's just begun. The next thing on the list of "things that must be done" isn't sending out invitations to the Awards party but to capture the "mirage" on paper. In other words, we have to establish what the "look" of the picture will be. What "style" of art work will represent the story we want to tell.

This process is becoming less and less common these days, even in television production. Often times, some type of art work will immediately follow the "idea" before the pilot script is written. Unless the mirage is as clear as the presidential images on Mount Rushmore, these initial drawings are preliminary and soon left behind. Some times these "pretty pictures" are necessary to entice additional money or to inspire a writer. Usually, they are merely unchanneled energy and consume vast amounts of money with no return on the investment. They wind up as expensive toys or gifts disguised as "exploratory" art work on the budget. When you purchase a large "coffee table" book of animation illustrations from successful Disney or Pixar features, you will notice a lot of this type of art work. The uninitiated investor must realize that the combined cost of this non-production art work may exceed the budget of of thirteen half hours shows produced for network television!

As a trustworthy guide, I must recommend against that expenditure. Save that money for choosing the art director or key designer for the overall series. Pick a style that best suits the vision of film maker: new wave, retro, classic, comic book, engraving, illustrative, water color, opaque paint, cut out, sketch line, bold outline, etc. Look at several styles that specifically refer to the audience and market you intend to attract. Once you've reached a decision on the "look" of the series, go ahead and don't look back! The temptation is to redesign and redesign until the money runs out and then runs over. Choose a qualified guide, make a decision from excellent choices and then, live with it. Pretty pictures will cost you a pretty penny. Put that art work on the screen not in your den. Make your vision a reality NOT a mirage.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

In Out of the Cold

As a young artist, I bounced around from "farm house" to "farm house". These small studios lived off the overflow from the major studios, producing a contract series with a small in-house crew and a string of free lancers. It gave the illusion of independence but we were all beholden to "The Company". Struggling to learn AND earn, I longed for a staff position at a Company shop so I'd be noticed by the big players. My opportunity came when the HB Company opened up positions for assistant layout artists. I never considered myself as a Layout Artist. I saw myself as an Animator. Layout artists were combination choreographers, set designers, costumers and stage managers. They drew backgrounds and props and positioned the characters on stage and gave basic stage direction. Animators were performers! They gave life to inanimate drawings and made them dance, sing and act. Animators were obviously the preferred artists. After all, they called the business ANIMATION not Layout! Still, they hired layout artists first and a job is a job so I signed up for the new gig.

As an assistant layout artist, my job was taking rough layout drawings and making them look presentable to the animators who followed. When I was an assistant animator, I had to "clean up"the work of oft times lazy animators. These guys would only do the minimum amount of work required and let the assistant finish off the job. Consequently, I was used to doing 14 to 50 drawings in a scene. Being an assistant layout artist was similar except for one big difference, there was only three to ten layout drawings in a scene! I went through a week's worth of work in two days! Soon my layout artist was complaining that I was working too fast. I found it impossible to stretch out so little volume of work to more than three days. I suggested to my supervisor that I be given two layout artists to assist. Instead, he promoted me to an apprentice journeyman layout artist which had more potential but actually paid less!

By now you're probably wondering what's the moral of this story. The lesson is, don't be afraid to adapt to new skills. The Company hired layout artists six weeks before animators so I started my employment earlier. I worked through the summer and then when layout work ran out, I switched over to animation which continued for an additional six weeks. By learning a new job I extended my work season by three months! The best part of it was I established myself as a responsible employee at a major studio and I became a "first call" when work opened up. After a couple of years of this, I was "kept over" the layoff period to work on special projects. At last I was a Company man! I was on staff, year round and permanent emploment became a reality.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Animation Purgatory AKA Development

Purgatory is a transitory state. You're no longer where you've left from and you haven't arrived at where you're going. It's a Way Station where the horses are changed. It the first Stage Stop after Euphoria. In animation production it's known as Development Hell.

You've arrived in L.A., Naive Investor, with a bag of money and what you believe to be a great idea for an animated film. The natural indication is to jump right into making your movie. If you've chosen your guide correctly, he won't let you do that. You have to answer a few questions first, like, where are you going? That question translates into "What's your market?" Who, besides yourself and your family, is the audience for the film you are making? If it's for children, what is their ages? Pre-school, 4-8 yrs.? School age, 8-11 yrs.? Or maybe Tweens, 10-14? Please don't say General Audiences! That designation means toddler (3 yrs) to toddler (85 yrs.). It is the hardest audience because it requires you offend no one which means you please no one. Narrow down your audience. For example, let's say you want to make a picture for your 8 year old. Fine. That child will be nine by the time your film is made, if your making a television series, or ten or eleven if you have a feature film in mind. Therefore, your audience is School Age (8-11 yrs.) and your series is made for entertainment but you want solid values in it as well.

Of course, you'll be wanting to do everything at once but the initial thing you need first, even before an artist or a director, is a script. You have a great idea but no cohesive story, at least not in a script form. Write your story or hire a writer to write it with you. Be prepared to pay for several versions of this story unless you have a real good idea in your head how everything goes and are really good at communicating that to someone else. You may need a writing team to supply additional ideas or gags. In short, be prepared to spend a lot of time (and money) getting your story in script form the way you want it told. The script is the blueprint of the film you are building. If you are investing in a television series, this first script is your pilot script. It is your sales tool to acquire others investors, a broadcaster or a distributor.

What's in that pilot script? A pilot script (like any script) must must be a good story well told. Did you ever hear a good joke told badly? You laughed when you heard a real comedian tell it but when repeated by someone who thinks a good joke is funny by itself, the joke dies. Those people should write jokes books but never perform. Film making is Performance Art. It's visual storytelling. So attach yourself to someone who knows how to tell a story well within the medium. Good novelists don't necessarily make good film makers. Now, a good story is essential but a pilot script for a television series must have more than that to succeed. A good story must introduce us to characters that are interesting. Heroes that we love and villains that we hate. A feature length film can be all about the STORY but a series has to be about the CHARACTERS. I'll introduce to some reel characters the next time we talk.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Losing the Green.

I know you're green behind your ears, Pilgrim. We all are when we start. You're still learning about the lay of the land, perfecting your craft and building up relationships. So, don't fret over the green, young one, it'll wear off. Most likely painfully but, most often, not fatally. Here's a couple of examples of how I lost mine.

I worked all summer, and then some, for the Farmhouse. I was having a great time drawing bubbles and drops from water animation and cleaning up the backside of a beautiful woman running away from camera. At break I'd "pitch pennies" with the crew and eat lunch out of a paper bag because I couldn't afford to go to a restaurant. But, hey, life was good! I had a steady job in the "industry" and got union pay and benefits...I thought. The way this benefit thing works is, you have a certain percentage taken out of your paycheck each week and this is co-mingled with monies the Studio pays in your behalf to the Union. This money is kept in a separate fund by the Studio and it will be turned over to the Union at certain times of the work year. This money pays for your health insurance and pension. Unless, of course, your boss lies about the amount of hours you worked. Under contract, you have to work 300 hours during a work period to "qualify" for health benefits. When I was finally laid off, the Union informed me that I hadn't worked enough hours to receive insurance. I checked the time I worked and found that my calendar and pay stubs (Don't EVER throw those away, Pilgrim!) showed I labored over 300 hours! The Union sent over their business manager to look at the Studio books and found my hours were under reported by a week! Their bookkeeper was gone during that time. They were SO sorry. That incident delayed my health benefits by 6 months. I had need of it then.

The next year, I followed Tumbleweed Tex over to another contract studio where I got to draw basketball players dribbling all summer long. I worked at a desk by the door in a small apartment-like studio. Directly behind my back was another animation desk, unmanned. The high shelves of the empty desk was used to hold the 20 cup coffee pot for the caffeine drinkers. The drinkers were supposed to go behind the vacant desk and draw their coffee from the spout. Of course, this meant several extra steps. One of the partners decided he could save time by turning the pot towards me, lean over and draw his coffee. Over time, this pulled the pot closer to the edge of the desk. One day, I rolled my chair back to get a good look at my drawing and nudged the desk behind me. The pot tipped over the edge of the shelf above and 20 cups of boiling hot coffee poured down my back! My screams brought assistance and I was rushed off to the hospital. I suffered first degree burns all down my back to my waist. At my belt line, where the coffee pooled up, I had second degree damage. For two months afterwards I had my dressing changed every evening by my wife and had a check up at a doctor's office each week. My employers complained about my absence when I had to go to the doctor. Although a torts attorney would have had a great time with this case, I did NOT sue. I considered my reputation as a loyal employee, new to the business, more valuable than the pain I suffered. That coffee burned the green off me, though. The red along my back faded away but there is a permanent ring around my waist as a reminder that loss of innocence comes with a cost.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Picking the Crop

Naive Investor, when struggling to set up an animation operation to produce your picture and make your fortune, be prepared to work hard at it. Choose as your confidant an animation professional that is accustomed to working hard as well. It's not a part time job. It quickly becomes your life. In my case, I learned early on that there are worse things than working 65 hours a week with no overtime pay. Worse things than seeing the sun rise over the top of your drawing board after working all night. Worse things than seeing the credit for the work you did go to someone else. The worst thing is to have no work at all. The Old Trappers worked the mountain streams from mid Autumn until the deep snows drove them into hibernation. They often starved over those winter months, sometimes eating their horses or even the soles of their moccasins to survive. After the Spring thaw, they went back to work until mid-summer when the pelts were no longer of value. Six months on and six months off.

The Animation Industry had a similar schedule. The companies would hire artists at the end of spring and work them through the summer and into the autumn. With the shows all produced, the artists would be laid off before the holidays in November. Why pay for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years? Six months on and six months off. See the similarity? It didn't matter if you were a Company man or a free trapper, once the work was collected, you were unemployed again. Animation braceros. You pick the crop, hurry it to market, then hunker down and endure the winter until work begins again in the Spring.

No one liked this arrangement but the Network production schedule demanded this kind of procedure. The company men worked for their meager pay, collected unemployment benefits and consoled themselves with their health insurance that carried them over until the next work season. The freelancers worked like dogs during the season, squirreled away their superior earnings , bought expensive toys and prayed they wouldn't get sick. The best of the company men were carried over the winter on salary, working on "special projects". The smartest of the free-lancers scrambled for the high-paying scraps paid for product commercials. A few of the company men did both. I did.

Being a Company Man took care of health insurance, vacation and provided extended employment. Working evenings and weekends as a Free-Trapper introduced me to contracts, clients and connections that would serve me through the years to come. It also allowed me a degree of freedom and creativity that my company job did not. I remember one such contract agreement for a company that produced educational films for schools. Like all school funded projects they had to be informative, entertaining and CHEAP. Because the money was meager, they allowed a great deal of creative freedom because they couldn't expect to make strong demands for the money available. For a young buck out to make a name for himself, this project was heaven-sent! I designed a project that had way above the usual amount of quality and quantity in it and consequently required an enormous amount of work from me, but who cared. I had fun!

That's the point of being in entertainment, isn't it? To have fun? Isn't that why you've chosen animation to invest your money in rather than pesticide manufacturing? It's like the old joke: Patient:"Doctor, what should I do? When I hold my arm up like this, it hurts!" Doctor: "Don't hold your arm up like that." If in the midst of your production you find that you're not having fun, stop doing what hurts. Pain often comes from carrying too much weight. It's all a matter of control. If you want to be in control of every aspect of production (And most new investors do), then expect to carry a lot of weight every hour of the day. Expect to spend the most time on the really unfun parts of the job. If you want to have fun, then let go of the jobs you don't like to do. How do you know before hand what jobs are fun? I suggest you choose a veteran guide that will walk you through the choices in advance BEFORE the drudgery of animation production stops being fun before it starts. The experienced guide has encountered every problem before and has a solution. Several examples follow. Script development can be fun, unless you're expected to have quick answers to complicated questions. Solution: Hire a Story Editor to answer those questions. Voice direction can be fun, unless you want to hear every "take" played back and compared to every other take! Solution: Hire a Voice Director to edit the "takes" you review. Reviewing all art work can be fun, unless you could care less what color the tablecloth is in the eating scene. Solution: Hire an Art Director to limit choices to what you're interested in.

The truth of film production is, it is not magic. It's just hard work. Great animated films aren't created in their entirety by an explosion of pixie dust. They are built one heavy stone at a time. It's called the Production Pyramid. Building that pyramid is a topic for another time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bottom of the Food Chain

There seems to be a misconception of what it means to be at the bottom of the food chain. Let me explain it to you. As a boy, I had a summer job at the County Fair grounds. It was after the Fair was over cleaning out the livestock stalls. A mule eats grain and hay, passes it through its digestive track and drops what he doesn't use out the back end onto the ground. That's the bottom of the food chain! I got paid minimum wage to shovel it up. I shoveled a LOT of hog, sheep, cattle and mule shit. And I shoveled it fast. I did that so I could get this hideous job over quicker. You see, I had hay fever real bad. Amongst all that foul smelling crap was a lot of straw, hay and grain dust that I inhaled along with the fragrance. My eyes swelled up, my nose ran and I could barely breathe. The worse I felt, the faster I shoveled. The rest of the young men who were smoking or resting when the boss wasn't around told me to slow down! I was making them look bad. The boss loved me. If I was fifteen pounds heavier and two years older, I could have been running that gang. But who would want to?

Welcome to animation, Pilgrim. Here's your shovel. The lowest paid job in animation when I started was Apprentice Inbetweener. That's the bottom of the food chain. I got paid less than minimum wage to shovel it up. Here's how it worked: the Animator did rough drawings (eight) of all the key poses in an action and gave them to an Assistant Animator who cleaned up several drawings (2), did several new drawings (4) then gave the rest to me (24) to finish. I did the most work and was paid the least.

There were six of us working in that converted one bedroom apartment. Tex sat by the window in the front near "Looney", the world's slowest and most meticulous assistant animator. "Sunny", the veteran assistant, sat in the kitchen and "Aussie", who had the exalted position of Layout Artist, sat by the door. I sat in the back by the hallway. The bedroom was reserved for "The Don". The Don was a regal looking Spanish Art Director who had an elegant moustache and wore an ascot. He didn't mix with the rest of us much. He was Feature production. We were television drones.

After a month, I had to join the Union. Their one time enlistment fee was a whole weeks salary! It was more money than I was earning! I brought this up, reluctantly, to my boss who begrudgingly brought my pay up to the legal lowest amount. A wise investment because I shoveled fast. I found out how fast when a month later I was "promoted" from Apprentice Inbetweener to Journeyman Inbetweener! This was a mind-boggling jump of 12% in my pay! Of course there was a "catch" to this generosity. My Boss expected me to bring my production quota up to 200 ft. per week.

Footage. Now there's an antique term! In the time before pixels and recording tape, all animation (in fact all motion picture production) was measured in footage. The end product that went to market ended up photographed onto celluloid film. Oddly, the width of film was measured in metrics but the length was measured in feet. A foot (12 inches) of 35 mm film contained 16 frames or images. Each scene of an animated film was measured by length. How much work you did was recorded the same way. My new quota was 200 ft. per week. This worked out to 2 minutes and 13 seconds of animation. I thought I shoveled fast but this was twice as much as I could do! I put in more time. I came in early, stayed late and worked on Saturdays. Even with all that, my best week was 156 ft! Finally, my supervisor, Sunny, asked me what I was doing and I told him of my quota. He told me quotas were in violation of the Union contract. The most work any of my peers, including him, were doing was 85 ft. I was being taken advantage of by the Boss and making the rest of the crew look bad! So, I stopped working on Saturdays and cut back on the free overtime hours. I settled in at a comfortable pace of 120 ft. per week. The Boss never complained. Heck, he knew dang well I shoveled fast!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Free Trapper versus Company Man

Just about all the worthwhile guides I have known have been Free Trappers at some point in their careers. There seems to be some confusion about this term so I'll explain it out. A Free Trapper is not a Free Lancer...necessarily. A Free Lancer is an individual who works completely on his own out of the direct supervision of a Factor (union representative) or Booshway (crew boss). He sells the product of his talents "per piece" rather than as contract labor. The more he produces, the more he earns. If you're a young, talented buck and don't prefer a warm fire to an icy stream, you can make a good living this way. Now, a Free Trapper does the same but makes a contract, in advance, to a specific company for his total production that season. Because the Free Trapper is on his own without the benefit of an organization behind him, he learns a lot about who pays the highest prices, where the best quality product can be found, what's the best technique to use to make the most efficient use of his time and talent and, most importantly, those he can count on in a scrap.

Contrast these men to the Company Man. He is hired by a major company for a contract wage. Everything he produces, some say every idea he has, is company property without additional compensation. The benefits of this arrangement is a guaranteed wage with regular meals, union law to settle disputes and health benefits in case you get stove up. Of course, you won't get rich if you don't take risks, but you'll stay off welfare more often than not. I was a Company Man in my youth while I was learning the trade. I had a regular, full-time, night woman I was hitched to and she wanted a lodge of her own. Soon there were more mouths to feed and Company pay didn't stretch far enough. It was then I turned to "moonlighting" to bring in more income to meet the need. "Moonlighting" was frowned upon in the trade. The Union hated it as you didn't pay them a percentage of your "take". The Company hated it because you were aiding their competition. I was bred to loyalty. I give my word and the deal is set in stone. Whenever possible, I'd do my "moonlighting" for the Company that paid me a daily wage. This kept me away from the competition and allowed the Union to retain the illusion of control.

I've worked for the Company and I've worked for small, aggressive competitors. The Company offered more security but limited the money a man could make. The smaller guys (the Opposition) paid more and allowed greater creativity and opportunity. If you want the broadest range of creativity and the faster track to advancement, sooner or later, you move to the Opposition. Of course, the risks are greater and the danger of the Opposition failing or being absorbed by the Company are high. Some day you could find yourself working as a Free Trapper running your own crew because the options have disappeared. That could break you or make you into something they tell stories about. This journal is my story.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tumbleweed Tex

You gotta have a portfolio when you go in to ask a total stranger for a job. If you're new out of school, it will most likely look pretty pathetic. Mine did. I had a bunch of drawings of naked models, some illustrations of faux advertising layouts and book covers and a small reel of 16mm film that contained all the animation I ever did. The owner of the studio I applied at never looked at any of it. He told me he wasn't sure if he wanted to take on a beginner and that I should try and get another job somewhere else. If I couldn't find anything elsewhere, I could come crawling back and he'd see what he could do. Nice guy. Listen, Pilgrim, they're all "nice" guys! Expect some serious abuse when you try and convince someone they should pay you professional wages for unproven labor.

I carried back all my unexamined stuff and put it in my car. As luck would have it, I put my film reel on top of the car when I went to unlock the door. I drove off leaving it right where I left it. The last I saw of my complete collection of animation is when I looked in my rear view mirror and saw it bouncing and unreeling down the Ventura Freeway. It made applying for any other job difficult. It's trying times like those that test your belief in a higher power. Luckily, the Big Guy in the Sky was looking over me. In my case, that guy was Tumbleweed Tex.

I wasn't always The Mad Animation Prophet. That took years of of struggle and survival. The wise ol' animation director, Tumbleweed Tex, wasn't always legendary either. On this day he was just another young pup looking for a square meal like I was. Attached to the Animation Farmhouse was a two story apartment complex used as a production facility. The second floor had a balcony along one side. On that balcony stood a young Tex. He saw me as I got in my car and drove off and, he recognized me! He recognized me from Art School where I was two years his senior. Tex rushed to the owner of the studio and asked if I was the same BFA graduate he remembered from those days. He was mightily impressed by my senior project; a music video of a Smothers Brothers song. He went on to exclaim that I was the best artist the school had! Now, if this information made the studio executive regret rejecting me, he didn't show it when I came back two days later to beg for a job. Instead he gave me a beginning job as an Inbetweener at the lowest pay possible, providing I came early, stayed late and worked Saturdays for no over-time. "Consider it on the job training." he said. I did. It was my start as a professional in the business and I owed it to Tumbleweed Tex.

Tex and I have remained friends and co-workers over the years. He was even my commanding officer during the Civil War. Still, to this day, I do not know what I did at school that so impressed him that he gave a positive reference about me at a critical moment. I'm glad he did, though. A key reference can make the difference when your portfolio fails you. Remember that, Pilgrim.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kit Carson and John Fremont

In 1842, John C. Fremont, an enterprising adventurer with a wealthy father-in-law, decided to seek a way into California. He had no particular skills except the ability to draw a fairly good map and a military commission. He had never been to California but knew it was west...eventually. However, between him and the gold coast were insurmountable obstacles called the Rocky Mountains. Fremont's enterprise was imperiled before it had started because he had no idea how to get through those daunting, snow covered peaks. Then he met Kit Carson. The old fur trader was a veteran of those regions and knew of a pass through the mountains. He took the pilgrim Fremont under his wing and they went on to make three wildly successful journeys west.

I held this knowledge in my thoughts as I stared in wonderment at the little film my pilgrim financier had made. Two adjectives came to mind. The film was either disastrous or sincere, depending on how you were raised. My mother's voice whispered a selection and I planned my escape. I suggested that if this sincere film was what he had in mind to make, he didn't need me. I knew many a young student film maker that would love to take on this project, for a whole lot less. But this newcomer was a whole lot slipperier than he looked! He quickly barred my way to the door and assured me he wanted nothing but the best. As that was obviously me, we shook on it and I took the job. I started a studio, hired a crew and jumped into the enterprise with both feet. Now, most successful adventures are filled with hardships or they wouldn't be adventures. Carson and his group encountered frozen feet, starvation and outright war on their journeys. I encountered delays in funding, broken promises and decisions that came too late but I made thirteen successful journeys with this financier and an empire was built. Then he took on a wealthy partner and my services were no longer required.

Fremont's success with Carson put him on the path to military promotions and entry into politics as "the Great Pathfinder". But Fremont no longer had Carson and he bungled opportunity after promotion on his downhill slide to poverty struggling to live off his wife's waning fortune. Two years after I left a successful project, those thirteen successful episodes are all the legacy that remains of a crumbling empire on two coasts. It's not the money or the enthusiasm that makes the difference. It's the guide.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Educated and Unemployed

Right out of school with my portfolio and BFA in hand, I joined the ranks of the unemployed. I was educated but didn't know anything about getting a job. At this moment in time, I was a "non-professional" at everything. How does one go about getting someone to pay you for doing something you were paying others to teach you to do? Luckily, there always seems to be work for someone who is cheap, dumb, insecure and talented. On the other hand, being desperate for a job drives employment away. Desperate people suck the life out of you and every employer knows it. Don't go into a job looking desperate. Also, It is absolutely essential that you know somebody in Hollywood in order to find work. Even if that somebody is another starving artist. I called friends about where to look and I looked there. I found a studio behind schedule that desperately needed artists but had no place to put them. It was a perfect situation for an artist that had a work set-up at home. That wasn't me. I needed a studio job that provided the basic things, like a desk and supplies, in order to work. I heard about a small studio that sub-contracted work for a major animation studio. They call these small shops "farm houses" and extra work is "farmed out" to these places. The first place I worked professionally was, literally, a "farm house". I mean the building used to be a farm house! It's where I first learned about the "business" of Animation.

Let's digress a moment and talk about "the business". In the "old days" the entertainment experience at the movie houses consisted of a feature film preceded by a short film, like "Laurel and Hardy", a newsreel and a color cartoon. These seven minute cartoons, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Mr. McGoo, were all made by the major film studios in a cartoon shorts department. Prior to TV, many of these cartoons would end up at the local movie house on Saturday morning where all us kids would go and see two hours of cartoons, short subjects and serialized adventure shows like Flash Gordon, etc. The advent of Television changed the Saturday morning serials at the movie house into the Saturday morning cereals in front of the TV set. Sponsored by the major cereal companies, the shows on Saturday morning were almost all cartoons. Forty years ago the television industry was composed of three mighty networks. They all had a block of time on Saturday morning from eight to noon that was set aside for kid's entertainment. Originally they were produced by a motley collection of animation studios; TV Spots, Format, Pantomime Pictures, Friz Freleng, Filmation and, the biggest, Hanna-Barbera. These studios were all owned and staffed by the unemployed artists from the former cartoon departments of the major movie studios. These animation houses all competed for that Saturday morning block of time on the three networks selling sugary cereal. The first of those shows I worked on was "The Perils of Penelope Pitstop" and how I came to get that job is another story...

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Who You Gonna Call?

No one gets off the stage in Los Angeles thinking they're unprepared. They've got what they believe to be a good idea and a bag full of money. And they've done research! They've asked a friend if they know anyone in Hollywood. The friend has a friend who went to school with a kid that does something in the film industry, maybe even cartoons. The guy with the idea talks to the guy who does something involving the cartoon industry and offers him a bag full of money attached to an offer he can't refuse. (I have this horrible idea that this is really the way films are made! ) This particular story has a happy ending, however. The guy they contact actually does do something in the cartoon industry; he does voices for cartoons. He also knows he's in over his head but figures he's a quick study. He calls a friend who does voice directing and the two of them conspire to do something smart; they call someone they know who they have worked for before, liked working with and can trust. They call the Mad Animation Prophet.

Now, interested readers, I have been here before. I have been contacted by people who claim to have money and a good idea. They usually have only part of a bad idea and no money. They want you to do all the work, pay you no money and, if they are really good, get you to cover the cost of artists to develop drawings they also never pay for. It comes to nothing except sadder and wiser artists. The first meeting started well. There was the career professionals I had worked with, a live action producer, with heavy-weight credits, representing the board of directors and the two creator/producers. The creators were excited because they had a good idea they just didn't know what to do with. The voice talent were excited too, probably over the creators', supposed, bag of money. The live action producer seemed confused. What did he know about animation?

The Mad Animation Prophet was skeptical. Yet I was hopeful because the room reeked of sincerity. The creators did have a good idea. They wanted to do good. They had an idea to start a national program teaching children and family safety funded by altruistic corporations who would use the program to advertise their own participation. The representatives of this program would be adorable cartoon animal characters who showed the kids at home how they can keep themselves and their family safe. The purpose of the project was to create these marketable characters and introduce them via a free animated film the investing corporations would finance. Best of all, they already had the money! Wow. Could this be true? This deal had everything: professionals I knew, a famous live-action producer I trusted, a project that that will actually help kids and two sincere creators with a bag of money! I was convinced. I agreed to make their film but what did they want exactly? Fortunately, the creators had already produced a short film that spotlighted their characters and the information they wanted to highlight. All I needed to do was make a more "commercial" version of the idea. Then they showed me the film. My blood turned to ice! It was like discovering a hostile tribe's presence at a water hole AFTER you've unpacked your mule.

Friday, February 29, 2008

A Boy and his Pencil

You may wonder when I first realized I was mad. When I realized that I was "different" from normal people. That I saw the world in a different way. I was born of humble and legally married parents in a small meat-packing town in the Northwest Territory. My arrival was no doubt the result of enthusiastic "coupling" that immediately followed the Second World War. The first awakening of my artistic madness was confirmed the first day of school. The Kindergarten teacher made the mistake of praising my fledgling artwork to my overly emotional Bohemian grandmother. With wails of joy, Grandma related the story to my mother who, unlike her stolid German background, broke down and joined her mother-in-law's tearful happiness. I was only five years of age and was thoroughly confused. I realized I was somehow responsible for the weeping going on around me yet I remained unpunished. I knew when my father and grandfather returned home after work to a household in emotional turmoil there would be hell to pay. But no! Once told, the parental males responded in family pride, handed out cigars to the relatives and ice cream to the budding young artist. This incident had a profound effect on my greed. If scribbling on a piece of paper could be exchanged for ice cream, I was definitely going into that line of work!

And so I drew my way blissfully from ice cream after ice cream throughout my normal and healthy childhood. I drew comic books about toy soldiers bayoneting rats attempting to steal gifts from under the Christmas tree. I drew graphic covers for my elementary school folders of G.I.s bayoneting Nazis. I drew a regular comic strip in my High School newspaper, sans bayonets. Then, ignoring the advice of my high school career counselor, I decided to pursue art as an occupation. Finding Walt Disney's name on the board of trustees of the California Institute of the Arts, I figured what was good enough for "Uncle Walt" was good enough for me. The following September after graduation I found myself in the "movie capitol" of the world majoring in Cinemagraphics at Cal-Arts. In spite of many distractions, like the Vietnam war, student protests and an unsuppressed sexual drive, I managed to graduate with a Bachelor of Fine arts degree. I was now a madman with a college degree! Now, the real education began.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Stage Stop Starlette

Every now and again, depending on the financial climate, some enterprising financier will step off the stage at the dusty town of El Pueblo De La Senora La Reina De Los Angeles looking to invest in the Animation Biz. Sometimes they have a personal vision driven by religious faith or a family story to tell. Sometimes they've read a positive article about "gold in them thar Hollywood Hills" and seek an exciting investment opportunity. They arrive with a satchel full of money and with little or no knowledge of where to go or who to go to, to implement their dream. I liken their experience to the little farm girl who runs away to Hollywood to become a movie star. The very first person she meets when she steps off that stage in downtown L.A. will dictate how the rest of her life will go.

So it is with the financier. Unless the moving picture business has been your business in general and animation an interest of yours in particular, you must be very careful whose hand leads you away from the stage stop. It truly is amazing how the cost of animation goes up in direct proportion to how much money you have in your satchel! Animation is still a "hand-drawn" product. Technology has added fancy tools and overseas artists have provided a deeper talent pool but there is no "magic formula" to making an animated film. It's just simple math. It always surprises me how complicated this seems to venture capitalists. If an artist takes X amount of time to do a drawing for Y amount of money per drawing and you need Z number of drawings to complete your movie, it should be simple enough to multiply Y by Z to see how much the picture will cost and X by Z to see how long it will take.

Yet, time and time again I see budgets squandered on items unrelated to the manufacture of the product being sold and schedules being wasted on uninformed or ill-informed changes. Soon, there is no money, no product and no prospects for either because simple math was complicated by "hidden costs" that were no fault of the "expert" hired to guide the way. As a result, the disillusioned investor hangs a "Busted!" sign on his "California or Bust" ambitions and turns his wagon around to where he came from. Once he spreads his sad story among his fellow capitalists, you can bet that no more money will be spent on Animation speculation for a long time. Such a pity and so unnecessary. Research, education and good old-fashioned "due diligence" could have placed him on the right trail with a proper guide. I met the stage once when a naive entrepreneur stepped off and I couldn't believe his good luck!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Way West

Starting out young and naive in the animation business, as I did, only requires courage and the belief that you have a talent for it. Common sense has little to do with the decision. Still, attaching yourself to an outfit that claims to know the business multiplies your chance of survival. I recommend higher education. I am often approached by parents who try to get me to apprentice their artistic child right out of high school. In school, this neophyte did badly in everything else but art so naturally he should be just right for a professional career in animation! I always ask the hopeful parent if they would entrust themselves to a vital operation by a surgeon right out of high school just because he was good in Biology. I expect a graduate to enroll themselves in an art school that specializes in animation education before I invest time and money on them. In forty years as a professional artist and film maker, I only hired two people directly out of high school. They are the exception that proves the rule, "hire experienced artists not students".

Anyway, that's what I did. I spend good money on education in order to get a good start at earning all that money back. A good school has former professionals as teachers and former professionals know current professionals. It all starts with a recommendation. In my case, my first job came from a recommendation from an employed underclassman who always admired my work. The first job allows you to make money and get the second job, etc. As an artist, you will find the mere ability to spend the day drawing rather than "working" enough inducement to continue in the animation business. People come west just for this opportunity. I didn't come west for the "opportunity". I came for the ice cream. But that's another story...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Pilgrims in the Desert

Hail, ye Pilgrims to the Desert of Cartoon Programming! Seek ye a guide? Be ye here for riches or fame, beware the poisoned wells, frozen mountain passes or the mirages of golden cities that abound in this media wasteland. The natives here seem friendly but they lust after the goods that reside in your caravans or saddle bags. The golden plains of this beautiful land cover the bones of the ill prepared artist or naive financier who came seeking the success and wealth they read about in the dime novels back east. Before you outfit your wagon train for the journey to California, choose wisely your guide across the perils that infest this sacred pursuit. Forty years I have toiled for gold and glory and have found my share amidst the hardships and pitfalls of this difficult employ. Take ye the advice of a Mad Animation Prophet? My services are not free but I'll allow no pilgrim to wander off to certain destruction ill informed. I welcome all those with passion, talent and a dream. This be the place! But here there be dragons as well. I would spare you my scars, privations and broken dreams if I could, but will allow you the dignity to fail miserably alone if that be your desire. If I mark your fall, be comforted in knowing you will not go unburied but no stone will cover your failure. This is a harsh landscape that makes no allowances for the weak and ignorant. Wealth, talent and hard work alone cannot support the uneducated, arrogant or naive. Education lies in this weathered face and work weary hands just as it came to me from my mentors of the Golden Age. I long to pass on the knowledge but will not suffer it to fools. Be ye a student again? If not, fare thee well. Ye be warned.